ATLANTA (BP)–First Lady Laura Bush stood in the shadow of the same stained glass windows at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Jan. 21 where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. preached to packed audiences until he was assassinated nearly four decades ago.
The First Lady said history would be “unimaginable” without King, a “practical” man who loved his country enough to remind America of “her unfulfilled promises.”
“Martin Luther King Jr. shaped our laws, our values, our conscience and our history,” Bush said. “Martin Luther King Jr. was a man committed to peace and a man committed to change.”
Celebrating the 17th national holiday Jan. 21 of King’s birthday, the First Lady eulogized him in the church’s restored sanctuary with a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds. The overflow audience was accommodated in the 1,700-seat New Horizon sanctuary across the street where participants went through stringent security measures to watch the services via a live feed. King would have been 73 this year.
Politicians and dignitaries joined along with a group of older students to bring greetings and tributes and offer up a “Litany of Commemoration” for the man whose life work is archived at the King Center in a nearly six-block sprawl of buildings — many, including the church, which are preserved and maintained as National Historic Landmarks for the U.S. Park Service.
In contrast to a number of other speakers and dignitaries, Bush refrained from any references to the country’s war on terrorism, but instead touted the newly passed education bill briefly while focusing on King’s love for others as well as his “passionate commitment to education.”
Security for the event was tight in light of the First Lady’s visit. Many of the guests, among them INJOY founder John Maxwell, limited their remarks to tributes to the fallen leader. However, some took the opportunity to openly criticize American policy, both domestic and foreign.
Marianne Williamson, spiritual leader of the Church of Today in Warren, Mich., told listeners she was disappointed that speakers urged prayer for the American soldiers in Afghanistan while talking about how peaceful America was before the war.
“The nation is at war and Dr. King would have something to say about it,” Williamson said. “[The nation] spends more money on ways to kill people than on ways to help people.”
Although Williamson encouraged listeners to pray for the administration, she said she didn’t have answers but believes policy changes need to be made to avoid the incidents which prompted the Sept. 11 tragedies.
“Pray for your enemies,” Williamson concluded. “Bless those who curse you.”
The First Lady noted that, like another reformer, President Lincoln, King changed the course of American history.
“Slavery and segregation were America’s besetting sins and Dr. King, along with President Lincoln, looked at those fears from American life and American law — and American history is unimaginable without him.”
Even in the face of violence towards him and his own family, Bush said King was guided by a “single, overpowering conviction” that every member of the human family should be treated with dignity and worth.
“That’s what he lived for and that’s what he died for,” Bush said. “… He was the object of so much bigotry and hatred and yet he never was bitter or cynical, he never resorted to violence or anger — and he never ceased to love others.”
King continues to this day to have a “tremendous influence” on those who hear his message, said Bush, crediting his “incredible education [that] allowed him to become the 20th century’s greatest advocate of the American dream and the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence.”
After being interrupted by loud sustained applause, Bush went on to say King understood education being about more than “reading, writing and arithmetic.”
“[MLK] understood that education is also about shaping children’s character, about helping them become good citizens.”
Citing President Bush’s signing of a new education law recently, the First Lady said King “would have supported the principle behind the legislation, which is that no child shall be left behind.”
“I think he would be pleased that we are starting a new era in public education,” Laura Bush said. “That American schools are on a new path of reform and results and that every child in America will now have an equal chance to grow in knowledge and character.”
Reciting part of a sermon King preached in Montgomery, Ala., at the height of the civil rights struggle when “passion was flamed” but “segregation” was still the law, Bush lauded King for staying the course and reiterating his platform of justice: “‘To lead with dignity and discipline, using only the weapons of love.'”
The mark of the man, the First Lady said, is evident in the words he spoke about truth and about God and about the meaning of life itself and the end of life.
“Martin Luther King Jr. lived less than 40 years,” Bush said. “His life was often filled with pain. But he said the truth, he did the will of God and made America a more just nation.
“All of us are deeply indebted to him.”